NEW YORK -- There was a queasy time early last year when it looked like Anton Dubrov was going to miss this moment. He’s known Aryna Sabalenka for more than a decade, but with the double faults mounting to a DEFCON 1 level, there was a disagreement over how to fix her serve.
When Sabalenka declined to go along with suggested changes in her service motion, Dubrov offered to resign his role as coach.
“I think I’m done,” Dubrov told her after she lost in the Round of 16 in Dubai. “I can’t give you anything else.”
Sabalenka, fierce and fiery as always, wasn’t having any of that either.
“No,” she said, “it’s not you. It’s just something about me. I have to figure out the problem. We just have to work through these tough moments -- and we’ll come back stronger.”
On Monday -- with Dubrov still leading her support team -- Sabalenka will become only the 29th player to hold the No.1 ranking, ending Iga Swiatek's 75-week run at the top.
But tennis is a fickle sport. Most tournaments, even the best players find a way to lose. And as she works to set aside the career milestone to focus on being the favorite to win the US Open, Team Sabalenka know how quickly fortunes can change.
“That’s where you have to come back and bounce back all the time,” Dubrov explained. “That’s what's great about the sport, that you have every week to perform. And you have to understand, `OK, yeah, today I cannot do it but there is a next day where I can actually be better and I can take something from it.’ ”
That mentality has been ingrained in Sabalenka and has formed the foundations of her 12-month rise to the top of the game. But so far at this US Open, Sabalenka hasn’t come close to losing. On Wednesday she plays a quarterfinal match against the ascendant 20-year-old Zheng Qinwen. Sabalenka is the only woman left in the tournament who hasn’t dropped a set. In fact, she’s lost only 16 games in four matches.
And while she is a generational athlete, her team has had a big hand in her success. On Tuesday, Dubrov, physiotherapist Jason Stacy and hitting partner Andrei Vasilevski met the media.
They say Sabalenka, who turned 25 this spring, has evolved. The biggest change has been embracing her own vulnerability and being transparent.
"To be able to do the things that make her very uncomfortable rather than try and avoid it or go around it or pretend it’s not there," Dubrov said. "She’s like, `OK, just turn around and face it.’
"That was probably the biggest part mentally from the preseason training. She has a better understanding of herself, a better understanding of what’s going on around her, and that gives her a bit of calmness to make better decisions. Obviously, you can see the result from that.”
With success, of course, comes stress. Advancing deep into tournaments -- Sabalenka is the only woman to reach the quarterfinals at all four of this year’s majors -- means more matches, more aches and pains, as well as more headaches off the court.
Sabalenka has already played 58 matches this year, putting her on pace to outdistance her totals of 63 and 55 the past two years. It's a credit to her team that as we come through the dog days of summer, Sabalenka still feels fit and raring to go. She's the only member of the Top 5 to survive the first four rounds in New York.
"They are doing well in managing this amount of practicing and the recovery," Sabalenka said, "so physically, mentally I feel ready. I feel motivated. I feel strong."
Dubrov, 28, was a fair junior player but earned only a single ranking point on the ATP Tour. He met the 14-year-old Sabalenka at a Tier 1 event in their hometown.
“She was hitting the ball so hard, sometimes straight to the fence,” Dubrov said. “Whenever she’s playing, she’s always fighting no matter if it’s [against] No.1, No.100 or 1000. Even back then, she played [against] herself more than the opponent. She’s trying to be really aggressive, screaming hard.”
Eventually, Dubrov found a place on Team Sabalenka as a hitting partner. He was elevated in 2020 when Sabalenka parted ways with longtime coach Dmitry Tursunov and, after only three weeks, Dieter Kindlman.
The biggest task continues to be containing Sabalenka’s volatile personality. And now, with her new place at the top of the tennis ladder, there will be more attention, more pressure and more distractions. There's a difference between being the hunter vs. the hunted.
“There is always someone in front if you’re No.2 and you have something you have to work through,” Dubrov said. “But when you’re a leader, it’s more about you have to focus even more on yourself about, `OK, I have to work even more on myself to get better and better.’
“If I will stop and I’m so grateful that I’m No.1, that’s where you’re going to just slowly die in this position.”